Biofeedback for Sports Performance
Olympians Try For Extra Edge With Psychological Techniques
Chicago Sun Times
By: Sharon Barret
If Wednesday is Mary Docter’s day at the Winter Olympics, it will be America’s as well. Docter, 23, is our hope to win the gold medal in the 3,000-meter speed skating competition. Whether she does will depend on her skating, but maybe to a greater extent on her ability to use sports psychology. Physically she’s ready. But last week she couldn’t get her mind in synch with her body. It’s a situation she’s never experienced before, not in world or national competitions. And one she’s aware she’ll have to rectify in order to have any chance at the gold.
Luckily, she knows what she has to do to remedy the situation. She has to find a tape recorder and put on a tape that Joseph Barr gave her. The sound of the psychologist’s voice should relax her. He will remind her how to mentally rehearse for the race. He’ll have her use imagery to go through the race in her mind. "I didn’t use the relaxation techniques last week," Docter said in a phone interview from Sarajevo, Yugoslavia. "I haven’t been in a real good mood. I should have been skating my best the whole week. But I haven’t. I’ve been funneling all my energy into the wrong things. I haven’t been able to concentrate. And I know I have to relax to be able to concentrate. So I’m going to use the techniques the next couple of days."
When she finally is calmed down enough for high-performance concentration, Docter will hit the ice in a trance-like state, ignoring the crowds, other skaters, everything but the sound of her skates hitting the ice. "I’m supposed to relax and concentrate on the image of myself out there skating my race," Docter said. "I should see myself putting my foot in the right place, setting on my turns right, moving my arm, that kind of stuff." Her psychological mentor will be watching on his television in Park Ridge.
And though Barr is an expert on relaxation techniques, he’ll probably be sitting on the edge of his seat. He may be a psychologist, but he’s also an avid sports fan. That’s what got him hooked up with the U.S. Olympic speed skating team in the first place. After studying the effects of stress for seven years, he decided that he could practice sports psychology. "I knew the Russian and East Germans had been using such techniques for years," Barr said. "The Russians have more than 300 psychologists working with their athletes and they treat their research like state secrets. There are 300,000 registered speed skaters in clubs in the Soviet Union; in the U.S. there are really only about 300." Barr called Diana Holum, the team coach, to ask if she was interested in incorporating psychology into a fitness program she was developing for a local hospital. She was. And what’s more, she wanted to know if he would work with the team at their summer training camp.
It was the chance of a lifetime for Barr. So with two of his colleagues, Jean Rossi, another psychologist, and Dettie Dominguez, a nurse therapist, he made the 1½-hour trip to the Olympic-sized rink in West Allis, Wis., once a week for five weeks to put a package of psychological skills into the heads of the 24 Olympic speed skating hopefuls. "We were disappointed we didn’t have more time to work with them," Barr said. "These skills are best internalized over a period of time. Ideally we would have liked to work with them the entire fall and have already introduced some techniques in their summer training. "Speed skating is a three-dimensional performance, using auditory, visual, and kinesthetic or physical sensation-senses. We found some skaters used only one sense. And it seemed almost crucial for them to use at least two, three ideally. "We also found internal criticism got in the way of a performance. So we would have those who were auditory about their performance ‘jam their channels’ by changing the tone of their voice or listening to music to get rid of it."
When the eight skaters who made the team returned from training in Europe, Barr starting working with them on a much more intense, one-to-one basis. Besides the relaxation techniques, the skaters were taught to focus on their performance, ignore distractions and keep a high level of excitement working for them. They learned how to recognize signs of superior performance by using imagery so they could reproduce it under the most demanding circumstances. The psychological team wasn’t just fishing. They knew exactly what they were looking for. Holum had seen a fine-tuned sense of imagery in 1980 when she coached Eric Heiden to five gold medals. "Eric’s sense of timing and capacity to imagine his performance were incredibly powerful," Barr said. "Say his longest race was seven minutes. He could picture the race stroke for stroke. And when he finished seeing it in his mind, he would look down at his watch and seven minutes would have passed. "We found skaters who pictured themselves performing seemed to virtually prepare their bodies for the performance. And those people without an image for high performance had a difficult time producing high performance."